Coveted pearl

China’s new South Pacific base to avoid Malacca Strait

Since maritime issues have dominated China’s future war strategy, Beijing is currently reviewing its ‘String of Pearls’ doctrine to acquire a new base in South Pacific which will easily surpass Strait of Malacca to reach Indian Ocean.

China’s grand maritime strategy depends on how effectively it can operate in both ocean surface with equal magnitude and show its military strength in the Pacific and Indian Ocean region.

For China, Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean are emerging as the life line of its geostrategic influence and trade & commerce.

As China is keen to avoid the Strait of Malacca and adjoining sea lanes where US, India and Japan are having substantial influence, Beijing has explored the opportunity for acquiring new base in the South Pacific region called as Tonga Island.

Tonga Island

Tonga has been an easy target for China for several reasons. The Tongan economy is weak and needs the assistance of a power like China. Thus China has strategically invested in the development and infrastructure of Tonga, flowered it with lavish economic loans and aid and assisted its economy.

Tonga is also a good option for dumping China’s cheap inferior goods, as are other island countries in the Pacific. China wants to now lease land from Tonga and they also hope to secure a naval base out of all these economic overtures.

The Kingdom of Tonga is typical like any tiny South Pacific Nation. It is a constitutional monarchy, deeply conservative and Christian. Agriculture and fishing are Tonga’s main industries as it has no strategic or mineral resources. Endowed with tropical beaches, rainforests and active volcanoes, it has a developing tourist industry which is also its main source of hard currency. Unemployment is high and the country relies on many remittances from ex-pats who are settled mostly in Australia and New Zealand.

Like many other tiny archipelago countries spread across the Indian Ocean region and the South Pacific, Tonga is now dependant on economic assistance from major players like China to support its weak economy and fund new development and infrastructure.

The Kingdom of Tonga and the People’s Republic of China established official relations in 1998. The two countries have maintained cordial diplomatic, economic and military relations since then.

Through a mixture of loans and aid, China has extended its diplomatic reach to countries like Tonga. In addition, in 2001, Tonga and China announced their decision to strengthen their military relations. In 2008, China provided Tonga with military supplies worth over €340,000.

Chinese investments, infrastructure buildings and aid are presented blatantly throughout the streets of the Tongan capital. Signs advertising “China Aid” erected outside newly built schools and government buildings are subtle political reminders of the Chinese aid and financing that have engulfed the Tongan economy.

Though the Tongan government declared that China’s aid was the only sizable amount that the government could afford to take for the rebuild, less money from Beijing would make life tough for Tongans and force more to leave in search of work to Australia and New Zealand. However, countries like Tonga will not be able to maintain sovereignty in terms of its economic situation if outside players like China, an emerging giant become so deeply involved.

China is aggressively lobbying for its geo-strategic interests across the Indian Ocean Region and the Pacific Basin. The island archipelagos are strategic points in the global commons and China would want to ensure its maritime security, particularly from regional giants and rivals like USA, Japan and India. Thus it has also consistently focused its attention on Seychelles, Maldives, Madagascar and other Pacific Island countries.

Of all the Pacific Island Forum members, China only gives aid to eight countries and Tonga is one of the largest recipients of Chinese aid, despite the fact that Tonga has one of the smallest populations of the eight countries and has few resources or strategic edge of interest to China.

China’s aid to Tonga stands second to only Fiji.  China does little trade with Tonga compared to many other pacific countries. In fact, it does more trade with Solomon Islands, which recognizes Taiwan. Tonga’s fishing zone is also not particularly large compared to other countries in the region.

Instead, China’s interest in Tonga seems to stem from a fear that it may switch back to recognizing Taiwan, because Tonga’s leadership is perceived as being close to Taiwan.

To the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, Oceania is a stage for continuous diplomatic competition. Eight states in the Pacific islands region recognize the People’s Republic of China, will six recognize Taiwan. These numbers often fluctuate as the Pacific Island nations re-evaluate their foreign policies and occasionally shift diplomatic recognition between Beijing and Taipei.

In 2003, the People’s Republic of China announced it intended to enhance its diplomatic ties with the Pacific Islands Forum and increase the economic aid package it provides to that organization, however, warning the island countries to refrain from any official partnership with Taiwan. In 2006, the then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao announced that China would increase its economic cooperation with the Pacific Island states by providing more economic aid, abolishing export tariffs and write off existing debts. Also in 2006, Wen Jiabao became the first Chinese premier to visit the Pacific Islands. Pacific Island ministers have visited China more than any other country.

Strategic interest

The primary reason why Beijing is increasingly interested in these pacific nations is their fish, potential mineral resources and votes in the UN.

China now appears to have strategic interests in demonstrating its ability to project global power via its increasing influence in the region. This is because regardless of their size, each independent South Pacific state has a vote in international organizations, which China can seek to persuade them to use in pursuit of its interests.

China’s efforts to lure the South Pacific islands were given a boost after Australia and New Zealand attempted to isolate the Fijian regime following a coup there in 2006. The Fijian regime responded by adopting a policy that included closing forging ties with China and since then, other regional states like Tonga have followed suit. Thus, China seized this opportunity to gain influence.

The consequences of China’s advance in Australia’s immediate neighborhood are most significant for Canberra, which is facing a situation where it may, for the first time in more than 70 years, find itself in a position where a nation in its own backyard has interests not necessarily aligned with its own.

China’s most significant strategic interest in the South Pacific is military access. China is also seeking naval access to the region’s ports and exclusive economic zones, engages in military assistance programs, and is negotiating access to facilities for maintenance and resupply purposes.

China is also giving competition to traditional international partners to these countries. Recently, the government of Tonga accepted a gift from China-a turbo prop aircraft for the kingdom’s new domestic airline.  But, at the same time, this has stirred up concerns about China’s growing role in the archipelago. China’s passenger plane for inter-island flights in Tonga prompted the New Zealand based company that had been the provider of domestic air service to Tonga to pull out, because it couldn’t compete with a subsidized airline.

The politics over the airline was blatant. Even after the Chinese manufactured MA60, no Western government has given it a safety certificate. Shortly after that, New Zealand announced the suspension of a multi-million dollar aid package to improve tourist infrastructure in Tonga until safety concerns were are resolved.

The flight fiasco could play havoc with the tourist economy that is currently gearing up for the whale-watching season on the country’s outlying islands.

Certainly, the emerging giant’s growing presence in the region has captured the public imagination.  Indeed, in 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the United States as being in competition with China in the Pacific Islands, and led a resurgence of US commitments to the region. She not only ensured greater economic engagements between the region and the USA, she also reminded Island states of the history, values and goals the United States shared with them.

Though countries like Australia and the USA have responded by increasing diplomacy and economic aid to counter China’s growing influence, what China is actually doing is ensuring economic and military opportunities and not presenting a threat to Western influence there necessarily.

But the Island states need to manage the risks of a rapid rise of economic interest from China, which include a lack of capacity to repay loans. Less suspicion and more cooperation from the region’s traditional partners would help.